Why Are Toyota Competing In Formula One?

Why Are Toyota Competing In Formula One?

This is a question that has been bugging me for a couple of years now, and one that won’t go away or receive a satisfactory answer. My question centres around Toyota’s continued involvement in Formula One despite a lack of results, made worse by the enormous amount of money the motor manufacturer pours into the team each year. They have achieved very little in the five years they have competed, and the end of the tunnel appears to still be shrouded in darkness as deadlines have recently been made regarding the future of the team. I have been unable to answer the question myself, but perhaps you, dear readers of BlogF1, could enlighten me…

Let’s take a brief look at how Toyota got themselves into the sport, their general sporting achievements and what they’ve done for Formula One since their inception in 2002.

Rallying, Sports Cars & Formula One

Toyota are one of the planets largest automobile manufacturers, founded in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda, and since then has grown rapidly to be a dominant force in the motor industry. Currently, Toyota own Lexus and Scion, own a large stake in Daihatsu and smaller stakes in Isuzu and Yamaha. Alongside their arch rivals Honda, Toyota represent Japan in F1 and the Japanese Grand Prix is now held at the Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway circuit.

Toyota have found success in a variety of motorsport classes, first founded by the F1 operation’s former boss Ove Andersson. It was the early 1970’s and Ove was raising eyebrows by entering a Toyota Celica in the World Rally Championship. Although the success was a slow development, he consistently managed to outclass the other Japanese entrants. By 1990 they had their first drivers title in the WRC, repeated in 1992 and the constructors trophy was won in 1993, 1994 (both with drivers titles) and in 1999 (just the constructors).

Other than rallying, Toyota also entered the 24 Hour Le Mans in the late 90’s, using their GT-One sports car. The machine wasn’t particularly reliable, but the crew did manage a second place finish in 1999. However, the chance to compete in motorsport’s most prestigious series was too much of a temptation, and by 1999 the manufacturer started developing a Formula One car. By 2002, they were ready to compete after a lot of extensive testing.

Toyota - 2007 Malaysian Grand PrixOn their debut at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix, the squad impressively picked up a point and success looked to be almost guaranteed for the team. With huge funding from the corporation, Toyota’s ambitions were high, but during their inaugural season they only managed another point in the third round. The team then had mixed results for the next two years until, in 2004, it looked as though they had matured and started to consistently finish in the points. In fact that season saw the squad collect 88 points and they finished fourth in the constructors championship. It wasn’t to be repeated though, and 2005 brought Toyota back down to earth with a bump. Since their very first race in 2002 to the present day, Toyota have only manged to claim 163 points from 207 races.

Toyota’s best result to date was two second place finishes in the 2005 Malaysian and Bahrain Grands Prix. The team have also clinched a pole position in the same year at their home race in Japan, although this result was perhaps skewed in their favour by running very light during qualifying in order to gain as much exposure for their visiting sponsors. The result from that race was an 8th for pole-sitter Ralf Schumacher and team mate Jarno Trulli retired.

Where Are Toyota Now?

Toyota - 2007 Malaysian Grand PrixFollowing the 2007 season, where the well-funded team only managed 13 points, it became public knowledge that the Toyota corporation were becoming weary of the lack of results. The squad are believed to have one of the largest budgets in the sport, some even suggesting the largest, a crown that normally rests on Ferrari’s head. But despite their massive funding, it isn’t being translated into results. Having completed five seasons, one would have expected Toyota to be further up the grid than where they currently sit. Due to this, the corporation have given the team two years to improve. There were no repercussions laid out should the squad fail to achieve results, or even what these results should be, but it is reasonable to assume that regular podiums is the benchmark, and failure to achieve this would result in the plug being pulled on the operation.

It was also admitted early in January ’08 that Williams, whom Toyota supply engines to, had actually helped the manufacturer team with the development of their quick-shift gear box, as well as advising on political matters within the sport. This to me is utterly astonishing given the differences in the teams budgets. It also highlights that money is not necessarily the key factor in running a successful Formula One team. For sure it helps, but I would suggest talent and experience are more critical.

The Future…?

Yesterday saw the launch of the TF108, Toyota’s sixth car to compete in Formula One, and along with the excitement of seeing a new car came the promise of improvement. Both the team managers and lead-driver Jarno Trulli stated that the car was a huge step forward and podiums in 2008 were a realistic goal for himself. Second driver Timo Glock feels that he can hit the ground running despite not competitively driving in Formula One since October 2004, then in a Jordan.

Unfortunately, I cannot see how Toyota can expect improvement without a dramatic shake-up of the team and its personnel. While building a new car is great and saying it is a vast improvement over its predecessor is morale-boosting, it seems as though the team are presuming that everyone else won’t have improved their cars either. The impression of the team to me seems to be one of poor management decisions and an attitude of doing it our way, even if it doesn’t work. While the determination to make their processes and procedures work should be applauded, there has to be a point where the team realise it isn’t working and a change to their approach is needed.

Toyota - 2007 Test SessionWhen Ralf Schumacher left the team after the 2007 season, he felt as though the management at Toyota weren’t doing enough to push the squad forward. It is believed they didn’t go after Ross Brawn, considered by most to be an enormous talent in Formula One management and tactical awareness. And neither did they really go after Fernando Alonso, again considered by many to be a supremely talented driver, backed up by his two championships. The fact they let Mike Gascoyne leave the team was astonishing to just about everyone in the paddock. Mike, known for his knack of developing under-performing teams into regular point-claimers, showed dedication to Toyota and even commuted from the UK to the teams HQ in Cologne every day. But citing differences in the future direction of the team, Toyota lost a great talent.

Sometimes I genuinely wonder why Toyota are in the sport at all. Clearly promotion, and therefore sales of Toyota motor cars is an important factor to consider, but as Clive from F1 Insight pointed out recently, maybe they’re not doing so well in that area either and reputations can be just as important as car sales.

That confirms what I have been saying about manufacturers in F1 – that they are here for marketing purposes and will leave if the sales do not flow from their involvement.

I have heard it said that just participation is sufficient for Toyota, that they need the market to see them as a company with sporting credentials. But this latest news shows that, without sporting success, the credentials are as good as non-existent. Clive Allen, F1 Insight.

The team seem to lack a real passion, or at least they do not outwardly show their passion, and thus do not endear me to them. Their management is poor, it must be given the lack of results, and they seemingly contribute little to the sport. In comparison, Williams have a great tradition, continue to strive for repeated greatness and hold their values and respect for the sport high. McLaren, Red Bull and Renault occasionally run their cars on (closed) public roads at events in attempts to show-off, get fans closer to the cars and of course to promote themselves. BMW set up their travelling theme park and Minardi and Ferrari built two seater cars which allow wealthy fans a chance to experience Formula One speeds. And Toyota? Well they are regulars at motor sporting events like the Autosport Show and Goodwood as well as the various motor shows around the world, but it isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff.

I honestly wouldn’t mind if Toyota closed its doors tomorrow and retired from Formula One. It would be a shame to lose a team from the grid, but maybe another company could take on the buildings and machinery and continue competing, Prodrive for example. It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of the 2009 season, when Toyota’s deadline for results is up. I’m expecting a small improvement between now and then, but I’m not sure it would warrant the massive investment from the corporation to continue. Are Toyota’s days numbered? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the team is certainly under the microscope at the moment.


  • Given a choice between the known Totyota performance as an F1 team, and the unknown performance of Prodrive were they to step in and take over Toyota’s place as a full manufacturer of their own car – I’d take Prodrive every time.

    Or practically anyone else to be honest – Toyota have proven that no matter what resources they have, be they financial resources or human resources, they simply don’t know how to be a success in F1. In fact they seem to conspire to get rid of the good things and keep everything that is wrong – right from the first year when they got rid of both drivers (who didn’t appear to have done anything wrong).

    I could see the point of spending such vast sums of money just to simply have an F1 presence if Toyota made true sportscars or at least decent performance versions of the cars they do produce – such as BMW with their M-cars – but even their roadcar lineup is lacklustre.

    I’m surprised by so many things – mainly why they are still in F1 at all, but also why, when they were competing against BMW and Mercedes, they didn’t enter as Lexus and then push road going performance versions of those models on the back of their F1 entry.

    Toyota in F1 hasn’t been a mistake, it has been a catalogue of mistake after mistake after mistake!

  • I think that Toyota are in F1 mostly for the legitimacy. They are close to being the largest car manufacturer (or they are, depending on who is counting and how), but they feel that they don’t have the respect of Mercedes, Ford, etc. I think that they want the glamour and glory that F1 can provide more than the sales it could generate.

    The lack of results, may just be because they are incapable. They invested a lot in Le Mans, but were never able to win. The were successful in WRC, but who knows how many of those victories were the results of the cheating that eventually got them kicked out of the championship. It seems that they tried to steal Ferrari data in the beginning of their F1 career, but that didn’t help.

    I’m sure that they want to win. But I don’t think that they know how. And it doesn’t seem that they will ever learn. If they asked me, I would advise them to just supply Williams (and maybe another team) with engines, and settle for whatever Sir Frank can deliver.

    Gary Shavit

    Netanya, Israel

  • And then Clive enters stage left with a witty, succinct reason and fair point. 😉

    Wise words Craig, particularly your final sentence.

    Gary, welcome. Toyota certainly have been involved in their fair share of controversy over the years. It almost makes me wonder if now, when they’re being honest (well, as honest as the other teams) their true competitive abilities have faded.

  • Ollie, when I read your headline and then a little into the story, something clicked in my brain. Early last season, at the Malaysian Grand Prix, in fact, I had a casual conversation with a top Toyota team director at an F1 event. I don’t want to say who it was, since while the talk was not stated as being off the record, it did take place in a kind of off-the-record environment. I cannot remember the exact phrase that this person said to me, but it was to the effect that, “You know, it is possible to take part in Formula One in order to be part of the sport and not necessarily have to win….” At the time I brushed it off as just a kind of spoiled sport sort of reaction to the team’s inability thus far to win. The person said something to the effect of helping out the sport, other teams, “having a presence.” My feeling was that it was just a way to justify and coping with the failure. I mentioned it to a fellow F1 journalist and he laughed it off, saying that there was no way Toyota would want to be in the sport to fill out the grid, and, of course, we’ve now seen that the team has been given a couple of years to succeed.

    But your intuition certainly made bells ring in my head….

  • Thanks for stopping by Brad, your first-hand accounts are always welcome, no matter how vague you have to be.

    You know, that is a tricky phrase to get my head around. Surely winning is the motivation of every single person involved in the sport? Fair enough, you have to be realistic, but ultimately I would be disappointed if Vijay Mallya or Gerhard Berger said they didn’t necessarily care if they eventually won or not. Being number one is the goal in any sport. If it isn’t, it almost questions the validity of the sport, or entrant in this case.

    If Toyota aren’t in Formula One with the goal to win, then I honestly feel they should be kicked out. At minimum, it makes a mockery of there “One Aim” slogan. I don’t want to watch a team that is only there to make up the numbers.

  • I agree with you entirely, Ollie. It’s a scary thought, and that’s why I did put it out of my mind to a degree – until seeing your blog item today.

    What you now say raises a third possible explanation for what I heard from this Toyota director: Although he did not put it this way, perhaps what he meant was that, well, “Even during this period in which we’re not capable of winning there is a purpose to being in the sport….”

    While it was a comment made in a coversation, and not during an interview, I must say that Toyota’s best defence will be to prove us all wrong and come through with a winning car in the next couple of years.

    I’m looking forward to watching the Glock/Trulli dynamic….

  • Surely someone happy with just being in the sport and not winning wouldn’t necessarily be spending quite as much as Toyota are apparently spending year on year?

  • Craig, that’s a pertinent point. But it also makes me start to ask questions. A couple of years ago Toyota had what was perhaps not quite the best publicity: The biggest budget in the sport, nearly half a billion dollars spent per season. Is it possible they have greatly reduced the budget and been asked to increase the results? I guess these are questions that will make for a good story next year – after speaking to people at the team?!

  • You don’t make as many changes as Toyota have unless you want to be competitive. If you are only there to be seen then why not keep the same people together because it is a well proven fact that consistency of personnel brings results so if you only want to be seen and not spend more than necessary that is the way to do it. The Mike Gascoyne signing cost a lot of money and the only justification for that is to produce results.

    I think they want to succeed but cannot bring themselves culturally do what is necessary to succeed. Anyone moving into a new competitive environment looks at what the successful people are doing and either copy it or adopt the bits you think will benefit you.

    I can’t see anything changing dramatically at Toyota over the next couple of years. If I had to run the Toyota F1 operation and keep within their culture I would drop the team and supply engines to Williams and supply 100% of their sponsorship and let Frank do the winning in a car that had Toyota written all over it. If they started that now they could have a championship in two years.

  • presence is important to them perhaps, but then they should work on it. just walk around the mecrahndising area of any F1 race and look for the most boring booth with the most boring merchandise … look around the grandstands and try to find some fans wearing Toyota shirts or caps (Fuji may be an exemption but even there Honda and Super Aguri fans probably rule…)… Toyota does poor job both on and off the track and do not really see how a POOR presence in the top echelon of motorsport can help a company like Toyota (unless the tax write off is indeed the benefit they are after 🙂 )

  • Wow, thanks guys. There are some great comments here and some interesting ideas. I’m pleased I’m not the only one puzzled by Toyota.

    @Steven: Check out Brad’s post regarding a possible change in the ownership structure of Williams. I always presumed Toyota would eventually buy-out Frank’s team and use them as a satellite squad. But apparently that may now be off-the-cards.

  • Read Allan McNish’s comments about Toyota (on Autosport.com). There may be people there who know what is needed to win. (At least there was with Gascoyne.) But will it ever be implemented with the present structure? Not likely.

    They have to see that even Honda is going for a Team Boss structure that can get things done.

    Gary Shavit

    Netanya Israel

  • My guess, from the confusion there seems to be between words and actions, is that Toyota really are in it to win it – but haven’t got that message through to everyone in the upper hierarchy, let alone figured out the basic lessons on how to do it.

    Oh, and the conversation Brad mentions reminds me of someone else who said something very similar about their team. It was Alex Shnaider, talking about Jordan at the time he renamed it Midland, ten months before he sold it to Spyker. Not the greatest of omens…

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